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These maps show deforestation and much more across Latin America – here’s how they can help counter the climate crisis

MapBiomas aims to enhance sustainable management of natural resources.

MapBiomas aims to enhance sustainable management of natural resources. Image: Unsplash/maksimshutov

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Measuring environmental progress or decline is a challenging task that MapBiomas – a collaborative network of more than 70 organizations in Brazil and 14 other countries – has been undertaking since 1985.
  • Its highly detailed maps contain insights that could help accelerate some of the Sustainable Development Goals for the protection and restoration of ecosystems.
  • Tasso Azevedo, founder of MapBiomas and a Schwab Foundation Social Innovator of the Year, explains how the project is helping to measure change, to make change.

How do we measure environmental progress or decline? Who tracks the data? And how can that data be used for positive change?

MapBiomas – a network of more than 70 organizations in Brazil and 14 other countries working for the promotion, conservation and sustainable management of natural resources – has been collecting huge amounts of data since 1985, tracking how Brazil is transforming its land use.

Tasso Azevedo, founder and General Coordinator of MapBiomas, explains how the mapping project – now also active across Latin America and Indonesia – is helping to measure change, to make change.

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The challenge of collecting data

“We started out by asking a simple question: what is going on with land cover and land use in Brazil, the fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world?”, says Azevedo.

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The challenge, he explains, is that it can take 18 months to create a full map of Brazil’s land use, which is why maps were traditionally updated every 7-10 years, making identifying year-on-year trends impossible.

Solving that particular issue involved assembling a group of people, including universities, non-government organizations and tech start-ups, to build a picture of Brazil’s land use.

MapBiomas Amazonia annual land cover/use maps are produced from Landsat satellite images, divided up into 30m x 30m squares. The process utilizes Google Earth Engine’s machine-learning algorithms, meaning anyone with a web browser can perform data analysis.

To follow land use transformation in Brazil, MapBiomas has digitally divided the region into 9.6 billion evenly sized squares.
To follow land use transformation in Brazil, MapBiomas has digitally divided the region into 9.6 billion evenly sized squares. Image: MapBiomas

And by making the data open source, that is exactly what has been happening – between 10 and 15 papers are produced every week based on the data, Azevedo says.

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Warnings and lessons from mapping changes in Brazil

The main benefit of having more regular data is the increased visibility of any issues, such as those discovered while mapping out the Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetland area across Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

Having access to monthly data as far back as 1985 has afforded analysts greater insight. They could see the region was losing much more water surface area (60%) than the rest of Brazil (15%), which then allowed for targeted responses in the most urgent areas.

The data can also be used to finesse existing plans, Azevedo says.

“Back in 2015, Brazil pledged to restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2030. But more recently, new data showed that there is already 46 million hectares of forest regrowth in Brazil today, so that raises a few important questions. Do we put our efforts into planting an extra 12 million hectares, or is it better to focus on caring for the existing reforesting areas?”

MapBiomas’ Brazil data, which covers deforestation, regeneration, wildfires, water levels, and even crop areas, is freely available to all.

MapBiomas is active across Latin America and covers a number of themes that relate to multiple countries, such as mining and agriculture.
MapBiomas is active across Latin America and covers a number of themes that relate to multiple countries, such as mining and agriculture. Image: MapBiomas
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Building on data to lead change

Azevedo – who was recognized by the Schwab Foundation as a 2023 Social Innovator of the Year in Davos, Switzerland – wants to end deforestation, and not just in Latin America.

“My challenge right now is to roll this system out into other regions. I don’t know how to make maps, I don’t know how to code anything. But I think my ability is to get people to collaborate together and believe that the impossible is actually possible.”

The World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Meetings – currently taking place in New York – bring together leaders and policy-makers from both the public and private sectors to address the slowdown of progress for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 15 is about life on land, and promotes the protection and restoration of ecosystems. At the halfway point, many of the SDGs are way behind schedule. Tighter financial conditions, geopolitical tensions and the increasing impact of climate-fuelled events are exacerbating unequal economic growth and prompting questions on the trade-off between immediate security, and investment in achieving the goals.

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What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

And while Azevedo believes in coming together to solve global problems, he also celebrates the power of the individual.

“There's one thing that – if everybody does it – we are absolutely sure will result in a better world. Everywhere you go, everywhere you pass, try to leave it better than how you found it. That's it.”

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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